Rival Militias May Determine Haiti's Future
Aristide's Weak Police Force Has Ally In Armed Group; So Does Opposition
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
ST. MARC, Haiti, Feb. 11 -- The Haitian police have returned to their
ruined outpost in this city, which days ago was in the hands of a
growing insurgency. Wearing body armor and carrying assault rifles, the dozen or so members of a special anti-riot force had the trappings
of official power even as they lounged on a recent afternoon, listening to music from a truck radio and drinking beer.
But their ability to bring Haiti's increasingly restive countryside
under government control depends on the help they receive from a potent
militia of eager young men loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The group's graffiti are scrawled on buildings across from the torched
police station, and its militants may determine whether the armed anti-government groups will gain the upper hand in a surging civil conflict.
The situation in this crumbling port points the direction in which Haiti's
political crisis is heading. Two opposing militias, which have been at
odds for more than a decade, have emerged as the central players in a confrontation that the weak Haitian government appears unable to
One of the main pro-Aristide groups is Bale Wouze, based here, whose
Creole name refers to a Haitian cleansing ritual and which boasts
tens of thousands of members. The group takes its cue from community leaders in the ruling Lavalas party and from politicians trying to
ensure that the president completes his five-year term.
But the armed opposition is growing in parts of the country, swelling
into the north from central and southern Haiti where it began, under the
leadership of former military and paramilitary leaders who have opposed Aristide for years. Among their shock troops, however, are young
men who once pledged allegiance to Aristide and his party, which paid them for their loyalty.
Here in St. Marc, 50 miles north of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the
police, reportedly working alongside a pro-government militia, moved
Wednesday through an opposition stronghold. At least two opposition members were killed in the ensuing confrontations, government
"The opposition says it wants to mobilize peacefully, but they always
do so with guns and shooting," said Amanus Maedde, a Lavalas
congressman from St. Marc and a founder of Bale Wouze. "If they attack the police and the population, then we will help them fight back."
The main armed opposition group calls itself the Revolutionary Artibonite
Resistance Front and emerged from Raboteau, a squalid seaside
slum in Gonaives, the country's fourth-largest city. The group, which takes its name from the central Artibonite Valley that divides northern and southern Haiti, once
supported the president and served as the chief conduit for Lavalas patronage in the neighborhood. Formerly known as the Cannibal Army, it extorted money from
occupants of passing vehicles. Aristide security officials now say it also controlled drug shipments flowing through Raboteau's docks.
The group's alliance with the government was tight enough, militants
said last November, that Lavalas gave its members hundreds of guns before
the 2000 presidential
election to protect polling places in Gonaives. Now those pistols and assault rifles have been turned against the president, whose allies deny arming the group.
Since the insurrection began six days ago, officers of the Haitian National
Police have shown little capacity to check the spread of violence that
has killed at least 47
people. Nor has the U.S.-created police force effectively intervened to keep the opposing militias apart, worrying leaders on both sides of the political divide that the
outcome could be civil war.
"We believe we have a legitimate insurrectional situation in Haiti,
and we absolutely condemn the violence," said Andre Apaid Jr., leader of
an opposition coalition known
as the Group of 184, who warned in comments to reporters that "as we speak, gangs are being armed" by the government. "It's a struggle for people trying to take a
nonviolent approach because it limits our options."
Aristide, a former priest who helped topple the Duvalier dictatorship,
became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990, only to be ousted
seven months later by a
military coup. Twenty-three thousand U.S. troops invaded and returned Aristide to power in 1994, and he was elected to a second term in November 2000. But
opposition to his government grew following disputed legislative elections that year. Since then, a coalition of businessmen, university students and others has challenged
Aristide for failing to address rising poverty and for not agreeing to schedule new parliamentary elections. Aristide says he has not had enough time to achieve reforms,
adding that U.S. restrictions on aid payments have further hurt the economy.
The rival militias have their roots in the years surrounding Aristide's
return, in part as a result of his attempts to protect himself from another
coup. The Artibonite group,
based in Gonaives, is at the heart of the insurrection. It is led, its members say, by Jean Tatoune, a former paramilitary leader who had been serving a life sentence for
his role in the 1994 massacre of Aristide supporters in Raboteau. Tatoune escaped in August 2002 when allies drove a tractor through the wall of the Gonaives prison,
freeing him and 159 others.
Last week, the insurrection spread quickly from Gonaives to St. Marc,
20 miles to the south, when another opposition group, Ramicos, perhaps
only loosely affiliated
with the rebels in Gonaives, attacked two police stations and looted the port. The uprising has since moved into the north, long a hotbed of resistance to virtually all of
"It's not a matter of how many there are, but of how capable they are
of fighting," said the newly arrived commander of the anti-riot police
in St. Marc, who declined to
give his name. He asserted that ex-army officers were directing the anti-Aristide group. "And these groups know exactly what they are doing."
The guns being used by both sides appear to be mostly vintage M-1 and
M-14 rifles, likely from military stockpiles left after Aristide dissolved
the 7,000-member army
on his return in 1994. The United States helped train and finance the Haitian National Police, which replaced the military, but the police force has withered from 5,000 to
roughly 3,000 officers in recent years.
The police force "is a young one, and they need more time to be professionalized,"
Aristide told reporters Wednesday at the National Palace. "They are doing
to protect the people, and if they are doing their best, the people must cooperate with them."
Apaid, leader of the Group of 184, denied government claims that the
rebel fighters are the armed wing of the civic opposition movement, but
acknowledged that he has
spoken with the group in Gonaives and said he encouraged its leaders to refrain from violence.
He said he advocates demonstrations instead of violence and has called
for a coalition march on Thursday. "If we don't march, then the nonviolent
we have chosen will lose legitimacy, and it must remain the only option," Apaid said.
In St. Marc, where opposing groups have squared off for months, streets were littered with car chassis, tree trunks and other material used in barricades.
Lavalas and police officials assert that Ramicos, the group that attacked
here, contains a number of former paramilitary members. Townspeople say
it has intensified its
armed effort against Aristide supporters in the past week.
At St. Nicolas Hospital, at least 10 gunshot victims have been treated
during the past four days, all of them young men except for an 82-year-old
woman wounded while
sitting inside her home, officials said. One of them, a 22-year-old welder, died of his wounds.
In the courtyard of Congressman Maedde's house, a dozen young men gathered
earlier this week, foot soldiers of Bale Wouze. A few of them tried unsuccessfully
hide machine pistols as visitors arrived. A police officer chatting with the men quickly slipped away.
Maedde said fewer than 10 of the group's members are permitted to carry weapons, although townspeople suggested that there were many more who did.
"We are the party in power and we are demanding peace," Maedde said. "The president will do his five years."